Governments gather in Canada in bid to boost biodiversity

BOSTON (AP) — Amid warnings that biodiversity is in freefall, environmental leaders will gather in Montreal to develop measures aimed at strengthening terrestrial and marine ecosystems and raise tens of billions of dollars to fund these conservation efforts.

Delegates from about 190 countries will gather for nearly two weeks starting Wednesday at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, or COP15to finalize a framework for protecting 30% of the world’s land and marine areas by 2030. Currently, 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine areas are protected.

The proposed framework also calls for reducing the rate of introduction and establishment of invasive species by 50%, halving pesticide use and eliminating plastic waste disposal.

The goals – more ambitious than previous ones, which have remained largely unfulfilled – are expected to be at the center of the plenary debate. But not far behind will be the financial issue, with developing countries likely to push for significant financial commitments before signing an agreement.

The design framework calls for raising $200 billion or 1% of global GDP for conservation by 2030. Another $500 billion a year would come from abolishing the politically sensitive issue of subsidies that make food and fuel cheaper in many places.

“The world is crying out for change and watching as governments try to restore our relationship with nature and the planet,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, at a press conference in November. “The current state of biodiversity is dire with biodiversity loss at levels unprecedented in our history.”

The United Nations conference comes less than a month after countries came together to tackle climate changeagreeing for the first time to pay poor countries for the damage caused by a warming planet.

Climate change combined with habitat loss, pollution and development have affected the world’s biodiversity, with a warning in 2019 that a million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction within decades – a rate of loss 1,000 times greater than expected. Humans routinely consume about 50,000 wild species, and 1 in 5 people of the world’s 7.9 billion population depend on those species for food and income, the report said.

“We are clearly losing biodiversity around the world. Our ecosystems — that is our forests, our grasslands, our wetlands, our coral reefs — are all deteriorating,” said Robert Watson, who has chaired previous UN scientific reports on climate change and biodiversity loss. “We are losing species; some are extinct and others where the population has even halved. We are losing genetic diversity within species. It is therefore clear that we are seriously affecting biodiversity.”

Brian O’Donnell, the director of conservation group Campaign for Nature, noted how he had lived in a time of “climate stability and natural abundance” but fears it won’t be the same for his daughter and her generation.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Will they be able to have well-functioning natural areas to sustain them? Will they take advantage of what nature has given us: protection from storms, pollination, clean water, food, abundant wildlife? Or will they be faced with the remnants of a once thriving natural system?’” said O’Donnell.

“Will the burden of the climate crisis and the degradation of nature be placed on the young people of the planet, the vulnerable and the poor, those least responsible for causing the crises?” he asked.

The challenge, however, will be convincing governments to do more to conserve and protect biodiversity and to deliver on their commitments. It will be a particular challenge to stand up for developing countries in need of money, which often have to spend money on more pressing problems.

“It would be a big deal if many countries committed to 30%,” said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, referring to the design goal of protecting 30% of the planet for conservation. President Joe Biden has already set a vision to preserve 30% of US land and waters by 2030, and then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to protect 30% of his land by 2030.

The track record of this convention is not great.

Governments agreed on a set of targets in 2010, but only six of the 20 were partially met before a 2020 deadline. Some experts believe delegates should investigate why the world has missed so many targets, rather than setting even more ambitious ones.

“You can agree within your environmental bubble … and that’s probably what happened in 2010,” UN Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen told The Associated Press. “But really we should have agriculture as part of the conversation. We need to have the funding system as part of the conversation.

Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said part of the problem is that there hasn’t been “sufficient accountability and monitoring” of the targets so far.

“It’s very important to put in place a monitoring framework,” she said. “Countries must report. There must be accountability… and the targets must be clear enough for governments to monitor and report on.”

One of the goals is to close the estimated $700 billion a year gap in what is spent on biodiversity. Part of the problem, said US Assistant Secretary of State Monica Medina, is that the world is not praising nature enough.

“We’re desperately trying to change people’s mindsets about nature, and the fact that the things we take for granted really aren’t free and we actually need to start accounting for their value and for the loss of their value.. .when development happens,” said Medina, who leads the US delegation at the conference.

The hope of funding hinges heavily on whether countries reform their subsidies for industries that pollute or otherwise damage the natural world. The delegates have met strong opposition from parties such as the fossil fuel sector, which would lose out if the reforms were implemented. Environment ministers also have little influence over whether their countries take this risky move – one known to cause unrest and bring down governments.

Watson, who has chaired previous UN scientific reports, said reforms are needed. “We need to get rid of subsidies. We have to collect the subsidies for agriculture, fisheries, mining, energy, transport and we have to use that money for sustainable activities,” he said. “There’s probably over a trillion dollars a year in what we call direct subsidies, direct subsidies on fossil fuels, on fisheries, agriculture, etc. There’s also about $4 trillion in indirect subsidies.”

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Associated Press science writer Christina Larson contributed to this report from Washington, DC

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Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @mcasey1

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